The Threat against Free Speech on Hungary’s Airwaves
By Peter Molnar* – The Nation
government shut down a station that connected many listeners—particularly the
elderly—to their country and the world
When the faithful listeners to Klubrádió, a talk radio
station that has been a beacon of free speech in Hungary, tuned in last
Monday, February 15, they found only silence. The government had shut down the
It was a blow to the station’s listeners,
many of them older Hungarian Jews, who flocked to Klubrádió’s eclectic format and humanistic programming. But it was
also yet another blow to free expression in a country that has seen its press
freedom stripped away year by year.
Budapest, the capitol of Hungary, is the
only city with a large Jewish population in post-Holocaust Central Europe. The
history of—and responsibility for—the Hungarian Holocaust has often been
discussed on Klubrádió, and it is not
rare that listeners calling in have talked about related losses in their own
Numerous elderly listeners had escaped
loneliness with their sets tuned to Klubrádió.
The older they are, the less likely they are to be able to access Internet
radio. None of them should be deprived of their beloved station, especially
those who are survivors of a genocide that a country committed against its own
Klubrádió has been highly critical of the current government—among other
reasons, because of the Memorial for Victims of the German Occupation, which
the government erected in 2014. It marked the 70th anniversary of the systemic
deportation of Jewish Hungarians from the whole country, with the exception of
Budapest, in 1944. The monument puts the blame on the Germans, but the
deportation was arranged with brutality and record speed by the Hungarian
As an open forum for public discourse, Klubrádió has challenged a range of
government policies, including those bearing on public memory and press
freedom. Klubrádió was the only major
independent radio station on the air in Hungary, where the governing party has
abused its two-thirds majority in Parliament since 2010. The government started
with a media law allowing itself to select all five members of the FCC-like
Media Council—possible in a member state of the European Union, which lacks a
federalist safeguard against such a fundamental threat to free speech.
Luckily, Hungary has its own equivalent to
the First Amendment, although it is not part of its Constitution. It was the
first of the “Twelve Points” of Hungary’s 1848 revolution: “We wish freedom of
the press, abolishment of censorship.” This is a moral imperative behind the
Hungarian Constitution. In following Hungarian history, freedom fighters were
subject to death and imprisonment for it, during and after the 1956 revolution.
Yet the current government, step by step,
merged the public broadcasters and growing portions of all other media into a
behemoth propaganda machine, exempted the biggest merger from competition
review as a matter of national strategic importance, and quickly removed Klubrádió from the airwaves. The sole
exception was in Budapest, where the station won its case in court against
charges for such things as not signing the empty back pages of an application,
and had the right to stay on the air during the legal challenge.
The pretext for finally shutting down the
station was that Klubrádió had twice
been late in submitting its weekly data on fulfilling programming quotas. The
puppet Media Council rejected the extension of Klubrádió’s contract for using its allotted frequency, and made an
open call for applications. At the same time, the council extended the
contracts of other stations who made the very same trivial mistakes. Klubrádió has challenged this clearly
discriminatory decision at court, and the completion of its judicial review
will take at least some further months. In the meantime, Klubrádió has had to go off the air, because the government deleted
from the law the provision that a station can continue to broadcast during
court procedures about its right to a frequency.
Way back, decades ago, around the time of
the fall of the Berlin wall, I was a founder and a vice-president of Fidesz, the party that eventually
transformed into the current governing party. In 1992, when I represented the
party on the Parliament’s media committee, we agreed with the Hungarian
Constitutional Court’s ruling that it is unconstitutional for any state
organization or social group to have a dominant voice in the media boards that
oversee the nation’s broadcasting system. But the party was already consolidating
its power in the media, as it would over all Hungary in 2010. In 1994, I took
part in creating a media law on behalf of another party in a governing
coalition with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The law provided that
oppositional parliamentary groups could nominate half of the members of the
media boards. Back then, the current governing party was one of the small
opposition parties. Yet, with its own two-thirds majority, my former party,
which claims to be traditionalist, has broken faith with the Hungarian
tradition of press freedom.
The government has since tried to put a
nail in Klubrádió’s coffin by drying
up its advertisement revenue. But the station has survived with voluntary
donation campaigns, now organizing support for those who cannot afford the
expenses of Internet radio, with which it plans to reach audiences beyond
Budapest. The irrepressible Klubrádió
keeps up the good fight fueled by wonderful older listeners, like my late
mother, whom staff member Julia Varadi called “Klubrádió’s mammy.” A few years ago, at a rally for her beloved
station, my mother said, “Nothing eases the loneliness of old people living
alone like Klubrádió does. I cannot
walk anymore, but I can stand at a demonstration for three hours.”
Molnar is a European and Hungarian slam poetry champion, writer, free speech
scholar, founder and editor in chief of the Underground Slam Academy, former member of the Hungarian
Parliament, and a Fulbright and Shorenstein fellow.
Deutsche Welle to launch Hungarian-language programming
By !!444!!! InsightHungary!!! (*)
German public service broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) will begin producing Hungarian-language programs in an effort to
provide “real stories” to Hungarian audiences, the network’s director
Peter Limbourg said on the German RBB media podcast last week.
The state-owned international network will reportedly focus on topics it says
are infrequently covered in Hungarian media, including human and minority
rights and LGBTQ issues.
“This is a European country where media plurality is in danger, and the
independent, critical press is under pressure,” Limbourg said. “So we
thought Deutsche Welle has a place here, as in Poland.”
DW earlier produced a Hungarian-language
radio program from the 1960s to the 1990s, and currently produces news programs
in dozens of languages, according to Szabad Pécs, which broke the story.
Limbourg said DW would first begin producing videos in Hungarian, and would
launch a YouTube channel by late March. The network could possibly work
together with local media outlets, he added.
DW does not seek to be the voice of the opposition, he said, but he expects
that the expansion of media plurality in Hungary will not please
Indeed, news of the decision was not well
received by the Hungarian government’s international spokesman, Zoltán Kovács,
who called it an act of “German cultural imperialism,” and claimed
that “the market determines media and press relations in Hungary.”
“What kind of content will Deutsche
Welle produce in Hungarian? Programs on European 20th century
history, perhaps? No. A look back at the era of colonialism in Africa? No.
Profiles of Marx, Engels and other modern German disruptors?” Kovács wrote
on his blog. He later posted a meme on Facebook suggesting DW’s decision was
an attempt to interfere in 2022 parliamentary elections.
InsightHungary, is one of the few independent media beyond the
control of autocrat Viktor Orbán.